You’re about to start a business, pivot with your team or proposition, or go into a new market. How can you assess how long it will take to get it going? What are the likely barriers to success? Will it work? Inertia is pretty much a universal law that speaks about how much work it takes to get something moving, and it can be one of the things that can stop an idea in its tracks.

This is another thing we’ve found can be more acute in an agency setting where we have to collaborate with at least one other company (the client) to get anything done. We’ve found that it’s not just a case of good work practices – though they help – it can sometimes be a case of trying to understand what every stakeholder is trying to get out of the project. Worst case, why some stakeholders might not want a project to happen.

In terms of mental models, this might not be one that gives a lightbulb moment, but it’s a sneaky little problem, and I can pretty much guarantee that you’ve tried to do something in the past and – for no particularly discernible reason – it hasn’t happened over time, being aware of inertia and how it works would probably have solved the problem. It’s a model that for me has become a subconscious monitor of everything I try and get done – where do I think the real barriers are – which part of this chain will be trying to stay the same while I’m trying to change something?

If you’ve ever seen Yes Minister (great idea Ed, make the topic come alive with a bloody 80’s pop culture reference) then it’s 1000 little Humphrey Applebys quietly resisting any change you’re trying to bring about.

It’s a simple idea with a simple solution, but it does take practice.

What is it?

Put simply, whether they’re aware of it or not, people don’t like change, so that’s the baseline – how many people or organisations are involved in this? The mental calculation is just that the more bodies to move the more effort it will take.

Similarly, what size of organisation is involved? It’s an extension of the idea above, but this time you’re looking at two components – the number of people in the decision and execution chain and the capacity or motivation of that organisation to do something in the timeframe you need.

Next, some people are motivated in some way to resist what you’re trying to do, or to modify it in some way to be more like the way they want it done. This isn’t linear, this component is a multiplier.

For example – Sales teams are notorious for thinking no one understands their job and they’re often weak administrators, so if your chain involves changing sales processes then expect to have to spend more time getting buy in and more effort monitoring implementation.

A more subtle version of this is not necessarily where people are resisting a change, but where they’re not major beneficiaries from it. So it’s not so much they’re actively getting in the way but they don’t see why they should move at the pace you want them to. What can you do auto add value to this person or group? How can you create more urgency or bring them further into the project?

Then there’s the compliance regime you’re operating in. It’s pretty obvious that if you’re trying to get something done in banking you’ll have to allow some time and capacity for the lawyers and regulators to get into it, but it actually doesn’t take much time before companies start to think harder about their legal or finance processes. Plenty of ideas have hit the buffers just because one of the partners has a particular payment process or something like that and they’ve learned not to mess with it, so the project stalls. 

Next – how much change are you asking for? I’ll do a blog on change management at some point, but for now, ask yourself how much of a journey you’re asking people to go on with you. This means how complex the project or idea is as well as how different it is from what each partner or component would usually do.

Finally there’s leadership and advocacy. Is the project well-led from your side? Do you have real advocacy in the partner companies? Is everyone as on board with this as you think they are, and do you have the right people in each component to maintain pace?

What to do about it?

As an agency, we’re really good at getting stuff done and helping other people to overcome inertia. So here’s the really simple mental model I use – it’s not something I really think much about anymore, but it’s a constant background monitor until I can feel things slowing, or something starts smelling fishy (eg, responses I’m getting stop matching what I thought people were on board with or additional steps start being added).

The first thing you can do is to make sure everyone is onboard in the first place and that you understand what everyone has to gain from it.

If you think some of the above areas are problematic, then like inertia in physics you’re going to need to do one of three things – add energy, add time, reduce friction.

Reducing friction means looking at the components (organisations and individual people) and making sure that everyone has as much to gain as possible by getting this done with you.

Again like inertia In physics, energy at the start can pay real dividends later. Inertia isn’t just about getting things moving, it’s about things moving at a constant pace. Get inertia working for you with early energy – have a launch, get the merch, have the stakeholders over for dinner together. Get it moving at a pace you want to continue at. The bigger the idea and the group executing it, the more you can roll forward on the initial energy, but beware your direction – bigger trucks at pace take more powerful steering.

Sometimes though, it’s worth taking some time. It’s critical to make sure you’re looking at the factors above and allowing the right amount of time to get something done, but sometimes it’s worth taking a moment to re-align, to reduce friction and to energise part of the machinery. Check all the cogs. When you do, remember to look at the reconfigured project, team or idea and add the energy back in – to re-start it properly.

Inertia is a simple idea, but it’s absolutely critical to develop an internal sense of it, and to understand the importance of pace and how to bring it about. It’s an absolute fundamental.

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